Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Dogs Know What Time it is

We don't exactly run a tight ship here. If you've read any of my previous posts, you probably guessed that already. But, when it comes to feeding the animals, I do my best to keep to a schedule. Animals like routine and structure especially at meal times. Hence, "The Song" -

Third verse, same as the first.

The grace period is from sunrise until about 8.30am, but after that I get this reminder. And I always respond. Essentially they have me trained.

Those dogs definitely know what time it is.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Thanksgiving Preparations

We are in the middle of a fortnight's break from shooting. The chiller is empty, aside from a fallow buck the stalker shot a few nights ago. It's the perfect time to harvest a few more meat chickens and to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving.

We chose the fattest one. She should have been on the plate last year, but my soft-hearted husband argued her case and she got a reprieve for her egg laying skills. She may be a bit tough a year after her 'best before' date, so I'm going to hang her in the chiller for a few extra days to relax the meat.

Her friend, who is not on the menu, is showing off as I take the Thanksgiving hen away -

Who knew turkeys could be such jerks?

Now, I'm off to raid the manor house orchard for windfall apples, enough for a pie and a cake. Then the dogs and I will head to the woods and see if there are a few chestnuts we can collect to make stuffing.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Of Tags and Testicles

This year's crop of lambs are looking strong and healthy. They've finally outgrown the diseases and common accidents that befall baby sheep. It was time to make them official members of the flock by giving them ear tags. Ewe lambs get one in each ear - flock number plus a unique identifying number. My ram lambs get the "pirate special" - one earring with my flock number only, indicating that they're destined for ice camp. No unique numbers for the campers.

I was waiting for a dry spell of weather to tag the lambs. The thick surface of mud in the handling yard makes it messy, and less hygienic for putting holes in one's livestock. Dry or frozen mud would have been preferable, but it continued to rain. I resigned myself to the weather, put on my plastic pants and got the big bottle of iodine to dip ears and tags as a precaution.

As a side note, I'm wearing the cardigan I knit for this shooting season -

It's becoming a tradition to knit one in time for the cold winter nights and days out in the field. In the few days since it's been finished, my cardigan has been out picking up pheasants, killing meat chickens, splitting logs, and now tagging lambs. It's destined for a life of muck and work, and it's holding up so far.

Back to the tagging - All my lamb tools fit in a plastic box that I rested on a hay rack within reach.  It was easy enough to catch a lamb, and hold it between my knees for tagging and a basic health check. I wrote down tag numbers as I put them in so I can keep track of mother-daughter family lines.

I tagged most of the lambs on my own, but Mike and Ian came up to the field and helped me catch the last few lambs, and take some photos. The process went so much quicker with an extra set of hands (and freed-up knees)

All lambs get ears, eyes, teeth, and feet checked. The ram lambs get an extra check, to make sure that the rings I put on their testicles did the job. I took a knife to anything still hanging on. 

This made my helpers whimper and go a bit grey.

I did manage to mis-ring one ram - one of the horned ewe's boys. He had been limping, and I couldn't find the cause. I even had a shepherd stop by for a second opinion. We couldn't find anything in the leg or hip joints. 

I expanded my examination and found that I'd only ringed one testicle. No wonder he was walking funny! I made what is know as a "rig". I had no choice but to cut off the rubber ring. Within 48 hours he was sound and a lot more comfortable. Only now I have a fertile ram in my flock. He will have to be separated out before he hits sexual maturity which, in a sheep, only takes a few months.

All my lambs get a quick hug before I set them down to run and find their mothers. 

I'm not sure that my affection makes up for, say, knifing off their withered scrota, but finding mom and drinking a bellyful of warm milk makes it all better.

There is only one more lamb to tag: the ram lamb from Eudora's triplets. I mismanaged the situation, ignoring all the books that said a ewe can't feed three. She seemed to be managing, so I thought I could beat the system by simply supplemental feeding the smallest with a bottle. 

The morning after our first frosty autumnal night, I found the smallest lamb looking hypothermic. And really tiny. It was like he was melting away. All of a sudden he was snack-size for a fox again. His ears were cold, and he'd lost his suckling reflex. He was hours from death.

I stuck him in the truck, in the front seat with the heater on full blast. A cold lamb can't feed until it's warm. 

Tink had to give up her dog crate in the living room, and move into the kennels with Spud and Quincy. The crate became a lamb ICU and as it was so close to Halloween, we named the ram Pumpkin.

It took Pumpkin a week of intensive care and a trip to the vets for vitamin jabs before he started to show any signs of recovery. Even then, at a month old, he only weighed 4 kilos.

He's doing very well now, and has just started going outside in a pen to graze. He has to wear Podge's dog coat to conserve his body heat but he's eating grass now so his rumen is working. As are his vocal chords. He blares at anyone passing, demanding his bottle -

In another week, Pumpkin should graduate to a dog kennel outside for a few nights to harden off. When he's self-reliant and has some muscle tone, he'll be returned to the flock with an ear tag. Mike wants me to give him two tags - and a free pass - but I'm not budging. In a year's time, when he weighs 80 kilos and still screams at me for milk, he's off to camp.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From "The Good Life" to a Better One

I apologise for my blog absence this past month, but I'm finally able to update you on what has been a difficult time (don't worry, it has a happy ending).

The estate decided to close the pheasant shoot. Mike was made redundant. We lost both our jobs and our home in that one decision. It was very unexpected.

Being made redundant when you work for a company is hard enough; being made redundant from a family that you've served heart and soul for almost 25 years is more difficult to process. Mike has made his home in Dorset and it will be a terrible wrench for him to leave.

But - here comes the happy part - the phone started ringing almost immediately after news of Mike's redundancy was out. It's not the done thing to "poach" staff from other families but now Mike was on the market, he had inquiries from shoot owners looking to redesign or reinstate their shoots (Mike's speciality). An experienced 'keeper who has been trained by the royal gamekeeper, and presented to HM the Queen for his services to shooting is not going to be unemployed for long. (If it sounds like I'm boasting on Mike's behalf, I'm just trying to focus on his strengths and remind him of his worth. He calls it "blowing sunshine up his arse". Same difference.)

One call came late on a Sunday evening. The owners have known Mike for many years and shot here as guests, including a particularly cold and wet day last winter when they brought their young son. The poor lad was succumbing to the cold, and Mike simply took off his own jacket and put it over the boy, and carried on with the day. The owners reminded Mike of that small kindness. Mike had forgotten, and I never noticed (it not being unusual for Mike to see to his guests' needs at the expense of his own.) They asked Mike to come for lunch and have a look at their shoot, about two hours' north of here, on the England / Wales border.

We have accepted their job offer and, when shooting season is finished here on 2nd February, we will be doing the same thing you read about on M&T, but in a new place, for a new family. A family that takes notice when their employee gives them the clothes off his own back. That bodes well for Mike and me.

We will keep our acreage here, but rent it out for now, and rent new fields closer to home for the sheep (now numbering 50 head) and Kitty. The dogs have new heated stone kennels, and we have a lovely lodge house with outbuildings and a well-tended garden. And a nice family to work for - did I mention that bit?

We won't know the real reason why the shoot's closing here until sometime in the future. Often a shoot closes because the family wish to focus on other sporting activities, like fox hunting. Sometimes it's a prelude to selling the entire estate.

Now our news is out, I can resume our normal blog scheduling, including updates on the end of the filming here, our shoot season so far, and of course it will come as no surprise that there's a lamb recuperating in the living room as I write this. It also means that, once we're moved and settled, I can start writing that book, filling in all the details I've left out of the blog. At least you - and we - know now that it has a happy ending.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Plucking work!

I harvested four meat chickens this week - stunned, bled and hung them in the chiller to relax. I would love to tell you that I weighed the chickens and calculated their feed-to-meat ratio and harvested them because I knew they were at the peak of their development. This is a lie. Like all jobs tackled around here, there was a much more basic reason: the meat chickens were getting a bit cramped in their shed so I freed up floor space by harvesting some of the biggest birds first. And we were out of chicken.

The underkeeper ran them over our plucking machine for me this morning. These ex-chickens are eleven weeks old, fed on medium protein food, on a free range system -

I bought two varieties of the same ' Farm Ranger' meat breed, one with brown feathers and one with white. The brown feathered variety is meant to grow marginally slower than the white variety; I wanted to stagger my chicken harvest, a half dozen at a time, because it's so tiring to do them in bulk. And, if an emergency came up and I had to put off the harvest, I would end up with a freezer full of fat chickens. That's a costly waste of chicken feed.

Once plucked, we found no obvious difference in growth rates between the brown and white varieties. The only difference is that the white ones pluck easier and more cleanly than the brown birds. The coming cold weather means that the birds are changing their feathers, so the brown guys are extra stubbly.

White Ranger (L) and Brown Ranger (R) with its five o'clock shadow!

There's some good flesh on them already, and only a little fat. Gutted and packaged, each weighs just over 2 kilos (about 4 1/2 lbs) each. I can leave it another fortnight before harvesting a few more cockerels. This is great news as there are 114 partridges in the chiller that need plucking for the weekend.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Lambing - the Post Game Roundup

Lambing officially finished at 1.30am this morning when L817 produced twins. I tended to the little lambs' needs: tubed them with warmed colostrum (mom's milk was slow), navels iodined (to prevent navel ill), a squirt of Orojet (to prevent watery mouth), dried off with a handful of straw while the ewe recovered. A final rummage in the straw to find the afterbirth, and dispose of it in a hedgerow far from Milkweed (to appease foxes) and I was back in my bed by 2.30am. Relieved.

It was a good lambing season. The scan showed 25 foetuses. We lost one in a difficult birth, and Eunice produced one undeveloped lamb (its twin is fine), so we have 23 healthy live lambs, 10 boys and 13 girls. Thirteen seems to be our number. Thirteen ewes were pregnant this year, and between them they produced 13 ewe lambs. The lambs not put to ram, or that lambed in spring, are grazing another field, and there are 13 of them too.

This was our first year lambing at Milkweed. I converted the two stables to lambing sheds, and it worked out great. I divided one shed into 4 individual birthing pens -

Empty stable...

...pens made from hurdles to encourage bonding, and a mesh door guard added to deter foxes...

...not quite at full occupancy...

When the wet weather came in, I was unbelievably grateful for these sheds. On those late afternoons when the sun was going down, and a ewe was starting to pink up and paw the ground, I could put her straight in a pen even before her water broke. When I came to do night checks, I meant that I didn't have to hunt the far corners of a ten acre field, and hope that I found her and her lambs before a fox did. Instead, I could climb over the fence, still in my pyjamas, and peek into her birthing pen.

When I needed to lend a hand as sheep midwife (we had quite a few lambs try to come out with a leg pointing backwards), mom only had a 5' square space to try and elude me. Babies landed straight onto rubber matting and dry straw, not sodden grass. On nights when fierce wind storms erupted, mom and babies weren't battling the elements. That takes its toll on both their reserves.

My friend and shepherdess neighbour Bridget (we're lousy with Bathshebas around here!) has experience of lambing indoors and suggested a nursery shed. Like a middle school for pre-teens, a nursery shed means that smaller twins and triplets can start stretching their legs and playing together while still relatively protected. So the second shed became a nursery room -

Spare straw bales make perfect climbing platforms and sleeping corners, and I can quickly pinch one when I need to clean out the birthing pens in the other shed for the next occupants. 

Like every maiden voyage and trial run, we had a vague plan and adapted it as required. It cost more in fuel to make the four mile, 4-hourly runs over our 23 days' lambing and I've fed ten bales of hay already using an indoor system. The yard around the sheds got pretty muddy with the extra traffic of tiny sheep feet when I shut them in every night, but we can simply top up the stone surface to fix that. All in, I count our Milkweed lambing as huge success. I think my flock, including the 23 newcomers would agree with me.

These are the shed graduates -

There are eleven big enough to stay out in the field now -about half the lambs- and they hang around in peer groups like high school kids. Of course, like teenagers, they still seek out their mothers at meal times. I will put a special lamb feeder with lamb pellets on the field this week, to take some of the pressure off of their mothers to produce milk. The lambs graze a bit now, and chew the cud too.

Tonight will be my first night in 25 days that I don't have to set the alarm for a 3am lamb check. I'm almost welling up with tears as I write this. I'm really tired this time around. Unfortunately I can't get a break or a day off, as our first shoot day is Tuesday and there's so much to get done before then. The dogs are too fat after a good summer and their fitness level is questionable. I will have to be careful and ease them into shoot days, perhaps swapping dogs at lunchtime so they're only doing half days to start, especially on warm days. I combine long dog walks with picking fruit for jams and chutneys, so the dogs are stretching their legs but I'm not concentrating on refreshing their training while I'm elbow-deep in a blackberry patch. They will all be slightly wild the first few days out.

Fraggle has fallen victim to the "Spud effect", i.e. she learned to answer to her nickname so Fraggle is out, and Tink is in. I prefer the name, and it's so much easier to use. Mike of course calls her Stink, and it's often an apt description of the little dog. Tink sailed though her gun dog puppy classes and we passed out last weekend with "top marks" according to the trainer. If I can keep her hunting drive in check, Tink will be an awesome force both beating and retrieving. She won't see the shooting field this year; she's just six months old now. For the moment, she's content walking with Spud and Quincy, and rolling in leaf-strewn mud holes or cow pies.

OK, by popular demand, one more cute lamb photo -

Next week it will be pictures of meat chickens and pheasants hanging out at ice camp.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Big Picture in a Small Village

Filming started last week, and the estate is teeming with people in neon yellow vests with radios, and extras in costume drinking coffee out of paper cups. The cast and crew put in 13-hour days, a lot of which appears to be waiting. Artistic merit and red carpet appearances aside, making a film seems to be a tedious process.

I don't see many movies and my tastes are narrow. I only make the effort to go to the cinema for Woody Allen and zombie films (if Woody made a zombie film, I would be his target demographic) and I probably won't see this one until it comes on TV. I did read the book. The first year I moved to Dorset I read all of Thomas Hardy's books. As an American, I appreciated living among the hundred-plus year old villages, churches and buildings that I could read about in his stories. My bank is in the building that belonged to the Mayor of Casterbridge, I can still eat at the Black Bull Hotel, and I regularly walk my dogs on footpaths through all his village settings.

I particularly liked Far from the Madding Crowd for its heroine Bathesheba, bucking convention and becoming a shepherdess to run a farm that she inherits. She's self-reliant both in spirit and financially, and Thomas Hardy makes the bold assertion throughout the novel that her suitors and marriage are the biggest threats to her independence. "Amen, sister." I thought when I read it.

My literary criticism aside, it's been interesting to watch the process of filming this story unfold. Filming is simply a business like any other. It requires huge amounts of infrastructure and coordination, from feeding people to moving people to building backgrounds. I can appreciate the set building from my museum days, as I remember time spent researching, designing, and labouring to create a single museum exhibition, often over a year. The process is a lot quicker with films. A whole village has been erected - complete with cottage, sheepwash, farmyard, thatched grain stores, and church - in under a month.
Grain stores in progress, made from round bales covered in thatch, with plaster mushroom "supports"

Most of these sets have been built in the main courtyard at the big house. Then one day, the 19th century arrived on the back of a lorry-

There must be a props department somewhere, where film companies just order set dressing for the time period required. Horse carts, barrels, wooden sheep hurdles, and woven crates turned up.

There's also a Base Camp for the film staff with a huge tent, motor homes, people carriers, and a double-decker bus being used as a dining hall. It sprung up like a crop of barley in a farmer's field. All the lights are on when I'm on my way to first lambing checks at 4 am. The crew keep farmer's hours.

Our house, far left and the base camp. The dogs are more interested in what the grazing cows left behind overnight.

Sadly, my fifteen minutes of fame passed me by. The actress was game for going into sheep wash herself, albeit with a stuffed sheep, so I wasn't needed to "double". To be fair, it must be easier for editing to make fake sheep seem real than to make me look like a Hollywood size zero in my 20s. The actor was not so outdoorsy, and a male shepherd was found at the last minute to get in the wash to do the cold and heavy lifting in the actor's place.

Another tick in the self-reliance box for Bathsheba, then.

My chickens have made the cut, and I drop them off to Gill the animal wrangler after my lambing checks. They asked for all brown hens, but I didn't have enough Rhode Island Red-type layers so I threw a couple of young meat chickens in there, and no one noticed. My future chicken dinners are earning a crust before they go under a crust.

When Gill's on another site filming, I look after a small flock of geese and Cromwell the goat, all regular film industry extras. They're used to handling so they're quiet, and I fit them in among my daily chores. All the animal work means there's still something extra to put in the bank, without long days in a cold bath - a blessing in disguise for me during a busier-than-usual lambing period. But, it's not such good dinner conversation as being the shepherdess double. "Always the goat handler, never the sheep wash babe." That's a saying, right?

Apparently, Cromwell the goat worked with Angelina Jolie. He doesn't do autographs, just pellets.

Mike gets occasional calls from various assistants to answer relevant game keeping questions. He's been summoned to show the actress the technique used to dispatch a rabbit. Not a live rabbit. No rabbits were hurt in the making of this film, of course. She simply wanted her scene to look accurate. I think Mike used a tea towel for demonstration purposes. (Incidentally, tea towels also make good chickens.)

Other than that, seeing how films are made is sort of like seeing how sausages are made. Personally, I don't want to know what goes into either, I just want to consume and enjoy. And with no story to tell of "the time I doubled for that actress" I will just have to be satisfied with being my own Bathsheba, and washing my own sheep. Incidentally, we're having bunny biryani for dinner tonight - one I shot, dispatched, and butchered myself in late spring, when it was fat on good weather and good grass. I hope Thomas Hardy would be proud of me.

Lambing update: Six ewes have lambed, and there are seven yet to lamb. Even with a few tricky births and to-be-expected baby illnesses, we've not lost any more lambs. As of this morning, there are nine healthy lambs. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Lambing Live! (and no-so live...)

Lambing has started, and we've had two births now - one easy, and one fodder for a shepherd's nightmares. Of course I'll start by describing the bad one in detail first.

On one of my regular checks, I saw this -

Easy to identify, first stages of labour: the water bag. It was attached to Gregor, an experienced ewe who had triplets last year. It was an hour or so before sunset and a nice evening, so I settled down on an upturned bucket to watch the show. It got dark before the end of the first act. Just water, no lambs.

I walked her to the maternity stable, but had to disturb her to move her. I thought it may set her lambing back a bit, but nothing to worry about. I let her settle in and sat in the truck to close my eyes for a minute. A minute turned into a hour, and when I checked on Gregor, she was still restless but not in labour. Mike came up to the field with dinner and a cup of tea. We sat in the front of the Land Rover eating Chinese takeaway, keeping out of Gregor's way and hoping she would settle.

I made a fatal error in judgement and let her continue unaided. I thought moving to the shed was slowing things down for her. In fact, when I finally went in for a look, the twins were so tangled that neither could enter the birth canal and start the process. That's why the hold up. Traffic jam.

I untangled triplets in her last year, but had to get a local shepherd to lend a hand with this one. It was a Gordian knot, with fleece. A shepherd is more cost effective than a vet. Vets don't come out at midnight on a Saturday night and detangle your lambs for homemade cake and a dozen eggs. This shepherd is a late-season lamber like me, so was on his rounds when I called and was with us in minutes.

Even after the pig's ear I made in that sheep's uterus, the shepherd managed to save one of the two twin rams. The survivor was very weak and couldn't stand or suckle.
12 hours later, and he's still so depleted. He's too tired to respond when his mother calls to him.

I tube fed him, and propped him on a straw pillow. I fed him and adjusted his position every few hours so he wouldn't get stiff. I milked the spare colostrum off the ewe to put in the freezer. And I worried. And I felt guilty. I had just read a chapter in the Malcolm Gladwell book about plane crashes. Apparently, in every plane crash attributed to pilot error, it has been shown that a minimum of seven errors occurs. Small errors in judgement combined with tiredness leads to catastrophe. I worked backwards from dead lamb to water sac, and charted my errors - at 3 am sat in a dark office with a cup of tea, unable to sleep even though I knew I had to be up to the field in two hours for the next check. No more lambs came that day.

No sense making mistakes if you don't learn from them. Mike did the next night checks for me, and I got a full eight hours' sleep. That made the correction for overtired. I read up on options for dealing with delayed births, and reminded myself to trust my gut. I plan to bake two cakes for the shepherd, just in case I need to call on him again after hours.

This morning I was at the field before 5 am and, just the other side of the gate, ewe 2844 was cleaning a pair of bright-eyed lambs. I could see the family in my truck's headlights. No hassles, no interference, no late night phone calls.

Ewe 2844 and babies, safe and dry in the maternity shed

We're lambing at Milkweed for the first time and having two horse stables temporarily converted into a maternity shed (individual pens for bonding) and nursery shed (group room for older mums and babies) is a joy. The weather's just turned - single digit temperatures and squally showers - and I know the babies are safe from draughts, foxes, and downpours. Kitty grazes close to the stables and when the ewes call to their babies, Kitty whickers back in fellowship. She has that matronly protective air of an older mare, and I think she's adopted the flock as her own. After all, she was a mother herself once.

There are still 21 lambs waiting to be born. No doubt I'm due more of those "Here's two I made earlier" scenes at the field gate, and no doubt I'm due more stuck lambs and heartsickening mistakes. The ram lamb has recovered despite his hard start. He's up on his feet and feeding now-

I think in aviation terms this one would be classified as a 'near miss'.

Friday, 13 September 2013


The M&T computer is up and running again - just. It still overheats but I'm going to try and limp it through the winter. I've found that a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a saddle pad makes a pretty good laptop cooling mat.

With that problem in the chiller, I can think about filling the stores. The harvest is coming in and I make time every day to pick, or gather, or cook up a batch of what's been picked and gathered. I've filled one small shelf in the pantry with chutneys - French bean, plum & chilli, apple & onion - and tomato relish. The house smells perpetually of malt vinegar during September.
A small selection of chutneys            

Preserving food is part frugal and part ritual. Though, as far as frugality goes, by the time I've bought canning jars, spices, and had the stove on for two hours, I can't in good conscience say it's free food. But everyone with a vegetable patch knows the mental anguish that comes with a glut. Compost it and you feel wasteful. Serve up beans or courgettes twelve days in a row and face a mutiny at your kitchen table. (A Mutiny from the Bounty!) Try and give it away, and you realise everyone else is wrestling with their own glut.

Garrison Keillor once said that the only time anyone locks their car doors in Lake Woebegone is during tomato season, simply to stop people leaving boxes of their surplus in your car. A fictional town and a fictional harvest, but surely a true statement.

In the UK, there's never an overabundance of ripe tomatoes. Not enough sun. Here, we lock our doors against courgettes. Courgettes and marrows (think a Hulked-out courgette). We can't even make ratatouille with them unless we - gasp! - buy tomatoes.

Pickling spreads the load. I can hardly face another plate of runner beans right now but the week before Christmas, that runner bean chutney with cheese and a door-stop wedge of home-made bread will be most welcome. Courgettes can be made into pickles that will keep until next spring.

A pair of cucumber plants burst out of their makeshift polytunnel - made from leftover pheasant pen sections
Freezing apples and blackberries is very frugal and less of a time-suck than standing over a jam pan. Peel and roughly chop the apples, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and freeze in recycled takeout containers - what could be easier? Blackberries just need washing before freezing. Voila! - instant makings for a hot crumble on a cold day. The only limiting factor is the size of your freezer. If I shoot a good-sized deer, then we have crumbles every other day to free up some space. And now you're back to the "too much of a good thing" scenario.

This is why eating seasonally has its drawbacks.

But you can't beat preserving for satisfying our human need for ritual. Harvest is probably the most rewarding time in a farmer's or grower's calendar. Whether your harvest is laid out on the counter for canning, or stacked in a barn for overwintering animals, it's a tangible measure of one's successes that year. It marks the culmination of so much luck, skill and hard work coming together. When the chutney or jam has been spooned into jars and you hear the 'plink' as the seal sets, that plink says to me "Your food's safe, now go and enjoy the quiet, contemplative months of winter". After lambing, cutting wood, culling deer, and shoot season of course.

Another crop about to burst out. The ewe's legs look like they are buckling under her weight!

My other favourite ritual job at harvest is braiding onions for storage. I've pulled and dried a small but respectable onion harvest out of the vegetable patch. I braided the best ones and they are hanging in the spare room on the curtain rod - the curtain rod with its end still resting on top of the bookshelf, having pulled out of the wall two years ago when I hung my braided onion strings on there the first time. You'd think I'd get around to fixing it during one of those quiet, contemplative winter months I mentioned earlier.

The onions too small or soft to make it on the curtain rod have been going into the chutneys. I use them as a self-limiting mechanism: when the onions run out, no more chutney. If you have compulsive tendencies (and let's face it, who doesn't?), canning can become a self-rewarding stimulus. Or perhaps sniffing vinegar stimulates dopamine production, I don't know.

Anyway, the onions are going to run out soon, but the beans seem never-ending this year. I've started feeding them to the dogs, cooked in lamb fat or with scrambled eggs. We have seven dogs and I'm always grateful that not one is a fussy eater. In fact, they never pass up an opportunity. When I'm making chutney or jam, Pip sleeps in the kitchen on the mat by the back door - far enough away that she's not being sent out for getting under my feet, but close enough to snaffle up any apple peelings or blackberries that hit the floor. Quincy adores banana skins, but has to rummage in the compost for her fix. Spud likes the ends of the cucumbers Mike eats in his sandwiches every day.

I hope everyone's had a bountiful season. Tonight we're having our first harvest of late carrots and some beetroot given to us by friends. And, if you're having problems curtailing your own canning impulses, I'm available for interventions.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Please Bear with Us...

We're having technical difficulties here at M&T -- the 'blue screen of death' on your laptop kind of technical difficulties. Parts are on order and the IT guy is standing by but, until then, I only have my husband's ye olde computer, which just about allows me to check my emails but not to edit and download photos, or publish blog posts easily.

There's still lots going on here. Lambing starts this week and there are 13 ewes fit to burst already. I will of course be posting photos of cute lambs. Filming on the estate starts soon after lambing, including my role as stand-in for the lead actress (as in, I get to be filmed "standing in" a cold sheep wash so she doesn't have to) and my extra job as goat- and geese-minder. You make your money where you can in the country. And it will be a fun, new experience too. Then there's just about time to catch my breath before our first shoot day on 8th October.

Please check back with us, we'll be on-line again soon. There's always my email address in the side margin, if you want to drop us a thought or question.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Gluts and Gluttons

We are in the thick of our busiest season (I feel like I say that in every other post). Our day's work runs from dawn to dark and, with the nights drawing in quickly now, we're running out of light before we run out of chores. Mike is out of bed before sunrise, to make sure his pheasants don't drop off roost into the waiting jaws of a predator. We've lost a few early risers but, as I say to him, everyone has to make a living, even foxes. He huffs and grumbles, and vows to get up earlier next morning. I don't see how that's possible unless he discovers a wormhole that allows him to time travel, and get up before he goes to bed.

The rain has come in- nature's way of reminding me that I should catch up on a month's worth of neglected farm paperwork. This included consulting a sheep gestation table to divine exactly when this autumn's lambing is due to start: less than five weeks from today. That leaves me just enough time to set up a fox-resistant fence at Milkweed, vaccinate and worm the expectant mothers, move them, and start them on extra rations. It doesn't leave me enough time to catch up on my sleep before lambs start dropping thick and fast.

A glut of lambs coincides with a glut of fruit, which I hope will be our year's supply of jams and chutneys. After a nearly fruit-less 2012, the cupboard is bare. I don't want to get caught out again and plan to preserve and store as much as I can. As much as I can, can. I've already started juicing windfall cooking apples to make apple cider vinegar, useful in the kitchen and as a tonic for most of our animals. Preserving the harvest is a very time-consuming job.

A lack of last year's chutney also means I have nothing to enter in this year's local country show. I'm full of good intentions in winter when the days are short and our workload has dwindled into something manageable. I always plan to enter a knitting project and some home made chutney at the very least. When the show schedule appears in July on the counter at the feed store or vets, we'e usually up to our armpits in pheasant poults. Knitwear and preserves are the very least of my worries, stored in my mental closet like so many winter coats and long underwear.

I manage to grab a few minutes while on pheasant patrol, or waiting for Dakota's acupuncture appointment, to knit a couple of rows on this winter's jumper but, at the moment, my knitting entry would consist of the back, plus a sleeve and a half of a ladies' cardigan-

Work In Progress

Picking it up and putting it down so much means the tension is all to hell, and those knitting judges are strict. If I entered my sloppy work, the judges would have my guts for garter stitches. I will have to take solace in the garment's warmth this winter, and forego the chance at a country fair ribbon.

I also had high hopes of entering Kitty in the coloured horse and veteran's classes at the show. She's got good conformation, and she's in the show condition (i.e. fat) that judges seem to prefer on cobs and native breeds.  We would definitely be in with a chance. Without a groom to help with all the preparation - washing, pulling, plaiting, chalking, oiling, - that goes with showing horses, I simply can't spare the time. I'm not even sure I will have enough free time to go to the show as a visitor which, frankly, isn't a bad thing. Last year I got slightly tipsy in the beer tent and bought a goat. It might be safer (and cheaper) to stay home.

I am making time to take Fraggle to her gun dog puppy training classes - that's a priority. The trainer is an hour's drive from here and Fraggle made it exactly halfway there before barfing over the front seat. She recovered, and made a good first impression on our trainer who said to me "That's going to be a fast dog. Stylish - but very fast." The thought of trying to keep up with this pup when she hits her rebellious teenager phase (in about 8 months' time) made me feel a little sick too. 

The meat chickens have doubled in size, and pound down a kilo of food each every week-

Like any hybrid crop, these meat birds will mature all at once and I'll have a glut of chicken to kill, hang, eviscerate, pluck (by machine, thankfully) and package for the freezer. Also time-consuming, but the harvest should last us a year.

The laying flock have another job to do this September: I've hired out a dozen chickens for filming. They will be extras in the movie being shot on the estate. I'll crate them up every morning and drop them at the big house. At the end of the filming day, they can simply see themselves home. Filming takes place around the orchard where they normally go scrumping windfall fruits that time of year anyway.

It seems only a small part of the filming will be here on the estate and tenant farms now. Lady S has also decreed that she will be exacting a 30% cut of any money paid to her tenant farmers for the use of their farms for filming. The farmers are grumbling about taxation without representation, and I'm firmly on their side. I'm waiting to see if she demands her cut of my chickens too (I wonder if she'll accept a check for £1.80). Maybe I can pay her in eggs; I have a glut of those. I haven't got a glut of cash.

Welcome to the real Downton Abbey, folks.

Friday, 2 August 2013


We had a month-long spell of hot, dry weather – an actual summer! I’m sporting a farmer’s tan, horsefly bites, and I’m itching from the dried grass that finds its way into my bra during haymaking. Thanks to a great deal done with neighbouring farmers, our hay and straw is now stacked in the barn, insurance that our livestock will have food and dry beds even if this winter comes early and stays late. A full barn goes a long way to alleviating my worries. That is, until I turn and look at our completely empty woodshed and coal bunker. We burned just about every stick and nugget to stave off last winter. It will take a lot of (wo)man hours to replenish our fire wood supply, the next job that needs my attention.

Our “people” winter food supply is looking good also- 

One freezer is full of lamb, and the rest have been butchered and sold, so even my bank account is more like the hay barn than the woodshed. Fraggle accompanied me on my lamb delivery rounds, harnessed into the front of the Land Rover. She likes riding in the car and visiting new people, but the harness isn't her choice -

It was a kind gift from a client, and comes from a fancy pet store in London. I told Fraggle to enjoy the small luxuries when she can. (To her, a luxury is finding a turkey feather in the garden.)

Thirty day-old meat chickens arrived last week-

I re-jigged the puppy pen and a spare kennel, and wired in a heat lamp to keep them warm until they’re feathered up and ready to venture out onto grass. If we get an Indian summer, these chicks could be in the freezer before shooting season starts, though not before lambing in mid-September.

Last week the sheep scanner man came to Dorset, and the local shepherd let me tag my 14 pregnant ewes onto his flock as part of our hay-making deal. The ram did us proud; we’re expecting 25 lambs! Ewe 5 is empty, Ewes 2 and 7 are having singles, Eudora is my only set of triplets, and everyone else is having twins.

Between now and lambing, I need to move the girls to new pasture and begin their prenatal feeding and vaccination regime. Their current pasture - below the partridge sheds – had good grazing but no shade. When the hot weather came, I raided my bed linens and knocked up a Bedouin-style tent with sheets and hurdles-

OK, more shanty town than sheik, but they all made use of the shade it provided. And I needed some new sheets anyway.

The dogs have had their pre-shoot vet checks. Dulcie came up lame, and we worried she would need her other cruciate ligament repaired, but x-rays showed nothing sinister. What a relief. Dakota is having back spasms, but with anti-inflammatories and a course of acupuncture, her prognosis is good too. On our last visit, the vet gave me an ice cream for the ride home. “I bought them as a treat for the staff. We keep them in the dead freezer. Have one.” I've lived in the country long enough that I found nothing odd about that sentence.  Anyway, nothing puts me off free ice cream.

Jazz is now in her new home with Hazel. I still miss her on our morning walks, but she’s a house dog now with teenage boys who adore her, and another spaniel her own age that she lived with for years. It’s a better retirement for her, an opportunity for more companionship, which Jazz thrives on more than retrieving pheasants.

Speaking of opportunities, filming for the Thomas Hardy film starts soon. None of us have caught the acting bug yet, but after receiving a little brown envelope from the BBC for Mike’s day filming, we realised that it’s an opportunity not to be missed. We've offered to be extras in the background scenes where needed. The guys have been told to start growing their hair and beards. The local shepherd’s horned sheep have been contracted, and I'm going to offer Trevor the turkey and his ladies for background shots too. We've had to leave some of the paddocks of grass long, so it can be used in a “cutting hay” scene, and scenery building has started already.

The thing is, it’s not much different than what we would be doing in a normal day anyway. OK, it may be out of season, and I’ll have to wear a smock and bonnet instead of jeans and wellies, but not a lot else will change. I’ll simply get paid twice for the same work, and filmed doing it. I'm already spending the money in my head: replacing the living room curtains that are still stained from the Great Jam-making Incident of ’11, purchasing that longed-for meat grinder, or maybe just a new set of sheets.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Fifteen Minutes of Fame?

Mike has had to take time out of his busy schedule being a gamekeeper to play one on TV. There's a new reality show destined for the US market called Ladies of London (I think that's the working title). The cast includes the incumbent Countess of this estate who will be having a shooting lesson with her friends under Mike's instruction as part of the show. It is one of the duties of a gamekeeper to assist his family and any guests with shooting requirements, and this certainly counts. Much to Mike's horror.

He's had to put on his full set of wool tweeds for the filming, and the temperature today is over 30C. An introverted man by nature, and still conscious of his scars from the accident, he's just walked out of the house looking like a man on his way to his own hanging. It will be good for his personal healing process to face this challenge, but Mike's still hoping that these scenes end up on the cutting room floor.

I want to be as supportive as possible and Mike is a simple man, so instead of talking to him about his feelings, when he returns from his ordeal he will find a warm gooseberry crumble waiting for him. Lady S has let me have her gooseberry harvest as she's not fond of the fruit herself. It's Mike's favourite (I told you, simple tastes). While he was sweating in his wool suit, I walked to the fruit cage in the walled garden and picked a kilo of gooseberries and made him  an "I'm sorry you have to do this, but it'll be OK" crumble.

Mike came home looking both tired and baffled. He's not used to seeing breast implants or enhanced lips. He asked me why they do that to themselves. Where do I start to give him an explanation? To Mike who has been through many painful re-constructive surgeries, he sees plastic surgery as a form of self-harming.

It's safe to say he hasn't caught the acting bug.

I could have stood and watched the filming, and taken a few photos for the blog but I haven't got the 'bug' either. Besides, I had to de-flea the dogs, help a friend trailer her horse, and the leg of venison we're having for dinner wasn't going to cook itself. And I've seen fake boobs already thanks. You'll just have to watch the programme if you want pictures.

The young Countess-to-be was happy, so therefore Mike's happy. And the BBC provided so many cartridges that there's enough leftover for 3 days' practice at the shooting club. Mike came home after four hours' filming and peeled off his tweeds, and ran straight out to check and feed his birds. Real gamekeepers have to deal with real livestock.

I don't know how to break this to him, but filming of a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd starts in September on this estate. On the up side, I don't remember a gamekeeper in that book.  I'll tell him to be thankful it's not Lady Chatterley's Lover. September's apple season - I can always make him another crumble.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Hard Decisions

I know I often say "Where's there's livestock there's dead stock", and that's true. What I forget to mention is overstock. There are always inherent limits on the amount of livestock one can keep. Sometimes you have a good year and produce enough females to replenish your breeding stock, and have extras to sell. Sometimes you suffer a bad year and the weather means you lose your entire hay crop, and you can't manage to feed surplus stock through the winter. Gaining or losing grazing affects stocking rates. The price of a finished lamb will push profits up or down, and influence your decision to breed more or less for next year.

You get the picture.

This year's hay crop on the ground, with days of sunshine forecast to dry it out before baling!

The horses, Kitty and Alan, count as livestock, but they don't have any earning potential. Both are purely a luxury item we have in place of big vacations. Mike and I used to get more time to ride together, but his workload has become crushing. He has exactly zero days off a week. After losing our hay crop last year, we are in arrears - at least in the fodder and bedding departments. This year's hay crop has just been cut and looks to be a safe bet "in the barn", but the possibility of another hard winter combined with an expanding sheep flock, and Mike's time constraints, led me to make a difficult decision.

I have sold Alan.

The first person to see him bought him, and it softened the blow that his new owner is a local lady. Alan's only down the road at a neighbouring (very fancy!) yard. I tacked him up for the last time on Sunday for his new owner, who hacked him straight out of the yard and 5 miles home. That traitorous lout never even looked back! As soon as the happy couple were out of sight, I sat down in the field and cried my heart out. It felt like breaking up with my first boyfriend. Worse than that.

My tears have finally dried, and with a few days' perspective I know it was the right choice. Alan clicked with his new owner immediately, and she's planning on taking him to shows and competing him. Alan is a do-er, and a social butterfly. He will enjoy a more active life.

Kitty is still here, and always will be. She's stoic about Alan's absence and, once the hay is baled, she can visit her horse friends in the neighbouring field so she won't be lonely. With only one horse to ride, I'm already getting out more. I've ridden more this week than I have the whole of the past month. Kitty and I will both benefit from the increased exercise. My bank balance will benefit from halving our horse stock.

Kitty eats her evening meal in peace now

Still, I miss my big, fat Alan - even if he doesn't miss me.

We finished hatching chicks last Tuesday, for the first batch of poults (half-grown birds) to be delivered on the Thursday. Initially the poults are placed in protective pens while they learn to where to roost and to feed, and how to avoid being fodder for hungry predators. The night before delivery, our dogs work through the pens and make sure there are no unwanted guests in the pen; particularly deer, which get trapped and then beat their way out. This is the start of our dogs' fitness programme. Shooting season is only a few months away.

This is also the time to assess the dogs for next season: how did they do in the field last year, what training problems are they having, any health problems, that sort of thing. Most working dogs love their jobs, and will work in spite of pain or an injury. It's up to us to protect these dogs from themselves with rest or medication, and monitor any changes in behaviour that can indicate improvement or deterioration.

Some dogs lose the will or ability to work. Often it's age related. Last year, Jazz our 8 year old black and white springer, started to show signs of confusion: losing her way even over ground she knows well, preferring to stay with me instead of working away to find lost birds. Her heart wasn't in the hunt. I had her checked over by the vets, and there is no obvious health issue.

We have made another hard decision: to retire Jazz, sooner than expected.

I'm happy for Jazz to live indoors as a pet with us, but we have friends who would like another retired spaniel to love. Do you remember Hazel? The family who adopted her love her so much that they've asked if they can have Jazz too. Mike's agreed. So, yet more tears from me.

Never mind forage, I'm going to be spending all my money on boxes of tissues.

Jazz is affectionate and personable, so I know she'll benefit from living as a pet in a spaniel-friendly family. She deserves the best retirement we can provide.

The last 'sold' puppy was taken home yesterday, too. In total, the five puppies went to three gamekeepers, one land agent, and one gardener. With all her litter mates settled in their new homes, Fraggle and I can begin her puppy training programme. We're starting simple: mastering toilet training and the 'sit' command. Fraggle's retrieving instincts are coming to the surface even at this age, and she loves carrying the turkey feathers that she finds in the garden, and - less helpfully - retrieving teabags from the compost pile. And her favourite toy?

A prolapse harness for a ewe.

Well, at least she's easy to entertain.

Fraggle will be living in the house for at least the next six months with Dakota, who's very tolerant of youthful exuberance, and Pip who most definitely is not. Pip will spend the next six months sulking in my bed, looking betrayed and put-upon until the pup gets a little older.

I know there will be more hard decisions to make in the future. Every year brings its own challenges and opportunities. The trick seems to be recognising them. For the moment, the sun has come out, and we are taking advantage of that rare opportunity. I treated the sheep for their assortment of summer pests this afternoon, planted more salad leaves in the garden, and enjoyed long morning walks with the dogs. My first chili peppers are ready to harvest. We have some new buff Orpington chicks running alongside foster mothers in the yard, including two chicks hatched and being mothered in partnership by the blind chicken and turkey hen -

Celebrating the overturning of DOMA through poultry

There's also a delivery of meat chickens on the way, and our ram lambs are ready to go camping.

Red dots - all aboard the bus to Ice Camp!

So, I guess my heart feels empty but my freezer will be full. That's farming for you.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Mi vacaciones Espana en fotos

I haven't posted about my riding holiday to Spain because, let's be frank, can you think of anything worse than sitting down at a friend's house flipping through photos while they regale you with stories about sun and fun? Me neither. Also, I was so enjoying the peace of riding through medieval villages and Mediterranean landscapes that I didn't think to take many pictures. My camera was usually buried in my saddlebag beneath lunch supplies and spare horse shoes anyway.

Lucky you, is all I can say. You get the short synopsis instead.

What I will tell you is I would do it again in a New York minute. But instead of three days, I would opt for the whole week's ride. Three days is just enough time for your muscles to stretch and your arse to go numb in the saddle. The pain was weirdly addictive.

Anyway, Barcelona was fine. Nice city, fantastic architecture - even though most old buildings now house fast food outlets. I had a view of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral through a Starbucks window. Kind of sad. I've lost my love of cities and found myself looking for pigeons, just to see some wildlife.

After a day in Barcelona we were picked up and driven to Can Jou - a village-sized, 40-horse farm owned by the same family for centuries. Our driver spoke almost no English so, armed with my refresher phrase book, I was excited for a chance to practice my Spanish. I needed more practice. The driver asked what I do in England. I'm pretty sure I responded that my wife and I farm pheasants in church.  

Can I point out that I took four years of high school Spanish, and was only 2 credits shy of a Spanish minor at university? 


There were four other women on the ride, and you could not have hand-picked nicer people with whom to spend a holiday. We all got to know each other over dinner and wine in a thatched barn, with mating pigeons carrying on over our heads. The owner, who also served the dinner, informed us that 'a man with a gun would come and shoot the pigeons in the morning' (HA! I know that much Spanish anyway). 

I got my opportunity to ride a PRE full Andalusian horse. This is Rey, my equine companion for the holiday.

A gentlemen, and fit enough to carry me and some fully laden saddlebags for hours over rough terrain. 

We crossed a few roads like this one, but quickly found ourselves in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I started in the traditional 'stick up one's ass' riding position, but the horse soon put me right; he needed longer reins for his balance, and I needed slightly shorter stirrups for mine. This was trekking, not dressage.

Both we and the horses stopped midday to rest and feed. After years of enduring British summers, the hot Spanish sun felt like a miracle.

The horses closed their eyes while we ate sausage and cheese and discussed our horses' good and bad points, like we were at a teacher/student conference.

The dogs who opted to come with us, ignored our gossip in favour of a power nap.

It was about 6 hours out the first day. We returned to the farm, to check over our horses and hose the sweat off their backs and bellies, and to feed them a huge high-energy supper. These are athletes, not like my lethargic pair of grass nippers at home.

We had our own comfortable stable block, with beds and showers

And we found more time for talking. Elin and I talked about the culture and politics in her native Sweden. It sounds like a fantastic place to live. I've put it at the top of my 'Places to Visit' list, based solely on our conversations.

There are no photos of our next days' riding. Halfway out on our ride, a tremendous downpour had us riding for cover, and killed at least two cameras in our leather saddlebags. The rain was so hard it hurt the thin-skinned horses who napped and trotted sideways to take the brunt of the storm with their back ends. We were all cold and wet - none of us had wet weather gear - but decided that it only made the ride more of an adventure. The ride back, whenever we trotted, all you could hear was 'Slurp-squelch' 'Slurp-squelch' as our feet shifted in our water-filled boots. 

After hot showers we met in the barn for dinner again. It seemed that the man with the gun only hit one pigeon that morning - Mrs Pigeon. Her surviving male companion wasted no time grieving. He was already cooing and dancing, trying to entice a new lady friend, oblivious to the diners below him.

A final day in Barcelona visiting Park Guell, a final jug of Sangria, and we were on the plane back to England. 

The next day I ordered the new brochure from the company that specialises in riding holidays. There's one in the Carmargue region of France that looks like fun. Anyone want to join me?